Dunkirk was a miracle. Its movie a masterpiece.
A story of survival, “Dunkirk” is one of film’s most immersive experiences ever. It is the “Gravity” of World War II dramas, but without the weight of 3D glasses or compulsorily crammed character development.
Typically, such character crafting is key. But this is not your typical movie. To quote “Dunkirk’s” Tom Hardy from another of his Christopher Nolan-directed roles: “It doesn’t matter who [these people] are; what matters is [their] plan.” And their plan is to get home.
Some have dinged “Dunkirk” for such simplicity, arguing its story is shallower than its shores at low tide. They want the background, the bad guys, and the British Bulldog himself, Winston Churchill.
But that is not the mission of “Dunkirk.” If you can accept that, you’ll find the missions it does take audiences on end in absolute accomplishment—though not without sacrifices in each story told.
There are three: the soldiers’ week-long stranding, the civilians’ one-day sailing, and the pilots’ one-hour dogfight. The shortest runtime of a Nolan film since his debut, the director packs every minute of their staggered journeys with purpose, starting with the opening run.
Even when “Dunkirk” slows down, it never feels slow. With every tick of its audible countdown, the tension picks up. At its calmest, “Dunkirk” is as unsettling as “The Shining,” with the claustrophobic Overlook replaced by Nolan’s agoraphobia-inducing overlooks of the soldiers trapped on Dunkirk’s empty coast.
And his shots have the force of Spitfires. Filmed with IMAX cameras, the sights and sequences of “Dunkirk” are just awesome—worth viewing in both 70mm and IMAX formats. Nolan truly achieved near “virtual reality without a headset,” as was his aim. The aerial action—using planes, not models, and blue skies, not green screens—is unlike any thrill ride ever taken in a theater. And this cannot be emphasized enough: It’s real.
That high note is only amplified with another: Hans Zimmer’s. From his branded booms of bass to what sounds like recordings in reverse, Nolan’s musical mate is as much a factor in this emotionally exhausting—and fulfilling—film as its action and actors.
With the latter, Nolan recruited some of his reliable regulars—Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and even a veteran of both film and the British Army, whom you’ll notice if you listen closely—as well as notable newcomers Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. Branagh and Rylance command not only their respective crews, but the audiences of “Dunkirk.” It’s hard not to follow, and fall for, their every feeling of fortitude, devotion, and elation.
In the younger cast, we see understandable fear and a sometimes selfish pursuit of their own great escape. But rather than shun them, Nolan does the more difficult: He makes us empathize with them and their fragility.
From sympathy to cinematography, every aspect of “Dunkirk” is as delicate as the snow with which Nolan so often fills his films. And in “Dunkirk,” he caps off that trademark tendency with his characters’ icy stare toward salvation.
Christopher Nolan has never made a bad film. But in “Dunkirk,” from the beaches to the waters to the skies of northern France, he’s achieved his pièce de ré·sis·tance.
5 out of 5